Training Running Economy

Running Economy

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Ed McNeely – Peak Centre for Human Performance

VO2 max is one of the most commonly measured physiological variables. Endurance athletes spend countless hours discussing, comparing and worrying about their VO2 max scores. Runners are always quoting VO2 max scores for one top athlete or another. Is all the attention that this physiological variable gets really worth all the effort?

VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen that your body can take in and use. It is a function of both the body’s ability to deliver oxygen via the heart, lung and blood and the body’s ability to use oxygen in the working muscles and other tissues.  While there are some exceptions, Elite runners typically have VO2 max scores in the 70-75 ml/kg/min range, similar to that seen in well trained amateur runners and some very fit age group runners. Your ability to have a high VO2 max is very dependent on your genetics. While other training variables like strength can improve by 100% or more VO2 max changes are limited to about 20% once you reach full physical maturity.

In aerobic sports oxygen consumption is tightly tied to energy expenditure and generally producing more energy means more power and work. The relationship between power and oxygen consumption is not perfect; efficiency or economy play an important role in determining how strong the relationship is in each person.

Running Economy, the ratio of power output to power input, is a key determinant of running performance.  A higher efficiency allows a runner to work at lower percentages of the VO2 max to accomplish the same or more work as a less efficient runner. In fact, a high economy rating can make up for lower VO2 max scores. Some measures of East African runners have found world class running performances, running 1500m in 3:35 or better, despite VO2 max values of only 63 ml/kg/min. This is roughly the same VO2 max score as a good age group runner and about 20% lower than would be expected for a runner with this type of performance.

Improving economy can have a significant impact on your running performance. There are several ways to improve running economy:

  1. Focus on technique – running stride and technique are key to running economy. Get a coach who will work on improving your running mechanics and who can do a proper gait analysis.
  2. Strength training – strength and power training have been shown to increase running economy by as much as 7%
  3. Altitude training – altitude training or intermittent hypoxic training, as outlined in a previous post, improves oxygen use in the body allowing more energy to be produced by the aerobic energy systems, which are more efficient.

Running economy is an area where many recreationally competitive runners can make a lot of progress when they think they have plateaued. Get your economy assessed and find out if it is limiting your performance and build a plan that will help make you the most efficient runner possible.

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PEAK Centre staff have the highest certifications available in Canada for Sport Science. With their combined experience and education, PEAK Centre is at the forefront of practical Sport Science application.